Three weeks after he was pitching like somebody headed for some remedial work in the minors, James Paxton is resembling the ace scouts once projected him to be.
The Mariners left-hander held the Boston Red Sox to five hits through eight innings Sunday in a 5-0 victory notable for its crisp pace. Paxton wasted no time following a game plan that called for fastballs, fastballs and more fastballs. And while he didn’t often make hitters swing and miss, efficiency was part of the plan, too.
Two strikeouts, two walks, 22 outs on balls put in play: It didn’t look dominant, but by the time he threw his final pitch — a 97 mile-an-hour fastball that concluded a three-up, three-down eighth inning — the Mariners were virtually assured of wrapping up their homestand at 6-3, with Paxton winning twice.
This would be same Paxton who, after failing to pitch through the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins on April 25, talked about the need to make an adjustment with his delivery. Seems he was rotating wrong — whatever that means — and suspected his mechanical difficulties were affecting his velocity.
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True confession: As Paxton detailed what he had done wrong that April afternoon, I nodded and pretended to jot down his words in my notebook. But I didn’t know what he was talking about and, as it turns out, neither did Lloyd McClendon.
When a power pitcher such as Paxton is throwing between 94 and 98 mph, McClendon noted Sunday, “it has nothing to do with mechanics. It has everything to do with commanding the fastball and believing in it. It’s a hard pitch to hit.
“Hitting is real hard. Don’t make it easier. Just go at them.”
A few minutes later, in the Mariners clubhouse, Paxton wasn’t budging from an insistence that the early-season struggles were rooted in faulty mechanics, and that his recent breakthrough — 20 consecutive scoreless innings since May 5 — can be explained by improved mechanics.
“I was long on the backside,” he said, “which was causing me to change my delivery on each pitch a little bit.”
McClendon might be as confused as I am by why a pitcher doesn’t want to be “long on the backside,” but he and Paxton are on the same page about one thing.
“He wants me to attack, and go after guys,” said Paxton, the No. 37 overall pick by Toronto in 2009 whose velocity is rare for a lefty. “Make ’em prove they can hit my fastball.
“Everything works off my fastball. If I can execute my fastball, there’s a pretty good chance I’ll throw the other pitches well, too.”
Said McClendon: “He commanded right from the start. It’s no secret: command the fastball and you’re going to win. It’s going to make everything else better, and when you command a 98 mile-an-hour fastball, it’s going to make everything special.”
The Mariners have been slow to gain traction this season. Some days the hitters are in sync but the starting pitcher is shelled. Other days the starter is solid, only for the effort to be undermined by the bullpen. Mistakes have been committed on defense and on the basepaths, where too many runners have been stranded at second and third.
No wonder the Mariners began a winning homestand 7.5 games out of first place, and finished it 7.5 games out of first place.
And yet every once in a while, you can’t watch this team without thinking of its potential to go far in the playoffs.
Felix Hernandez on Saturday didn’t pitch with the surgical precision he usually brings to the mound — “he’s not Superman,” reminded McClendon — but then Paxton takes that mound, 16 hours later, and barely breaks a sweat against a Boston lineup that caused The King to labor.
He attacked the Red Sox with a fastball polished by mechanical adjustments his manager neither understands nor cares to acknowledge. What McClendon does know is that three weeks after Paxton looked overwhelmed, the Mariners have a No. 2 starter capable of throwing a pitch that makes everything special.